Reflections of the Buddha?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am beginning to look at the Buddha’s disciples in more detail.  So I start with the inevitable question: why study the disciples?

By taking refuge in the Triple Gem, we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  Each of these terms has innumerable layers of meaning.  For the term ‘Sangha’, one of these layers encompasses the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis that practiced with the Buddha.  So studying the disciples of the Buddha is one way to take refuge in Sangha.

Bhikkhu Bodhi adds to this the following set of considerations:

…the very measure of the Buddha’s success as a spiritual teacher is to be determined by his skill in training his disciples.  The canonical verse of homage to the Buddha hails him as “the unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed,” and thus the acid test for the validity of this claim must be the mettle of the men and women who submitted to his guidance…so the brilliance of the Buddha as a spiritual master is determined not only by the clarity of his Teaching but by his ability to illuminate those who came to him for refuge and to make them luminaries in their own right.

The Buddha was a teacher who taught many bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men, and lay women.  If his teachings had no effect on those he taught, we would not care about him and this practice.  Part of our trust and faith in the Buddha Jewel and the Dharma Jewel is rooted in our trust and faith that transformations took place among those in the Sangha Jewel.

Although I agree (with some reservations) with what Bhikkhu Bodhi says above, I find it interesting to take this view of the Buddha as spiritual teacher and read it against the Buddha’s words when he says:

So too, brahman, there is Nibbāna, and the way leading to it, and myself as guide, yet when my disciples are advised and instructed by me, some attain Nibbāna and some do not.  What have I to do with that, brahman?  A Perfect One is simply one who shows the way.

The Buddha seems to be saying quite directly not to judge him by the spiritual attainments of his disciples.  A Perfect One points the way – so what if no one can follow the directions?

So in addition to taking refuge in Sangha and in nurturing our trust and faith in the Buddha Jewel and the Dharma Jewel, another reason to study the disciples is to explore further these two views of the Buddha – one, where his radiance as teacher is partly determined by the attainments of his disciples and the other, where the mettle of his disciples is largely independent of his ability to point the way.

But let me stress yet another reason to look at the disciples – they carried the practice with them, they lived it, breathed it, were intimately intertwined with it.  Without them, there would be no practice today.  The disciples are not merely reflections of the Buddha, but Buddhas in their own right and this would be reason enough to study them.

So with open heart and open mind, with grateful heart and grateful mind, let’s move forward on this path and see how it unfolds!

(Note: For Bhikkhu Bodhi’s quote, see Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, p. IX. For the Buddha’s description of himself as one who points the way, see this post.)

4 thoughts on “Reflections of the Buddha?”

  1. This is an interesting post, but I question the interpretation of “some attain Nibbāna and some do not. What have I to do with that, brahman? A Perfect One is simply one who shows the way.”

    I don´t see this spirit – that you apparently read into it – of “so what if no one can follow the directions?”. (I can almost hear a “snotty” tone of voice there with that “so what!”)

    There is an emotional association to the words “what have I got to do with it?” in American culture that is not necessarily true for other cultures. I ask myself if we don´t perhaps have cultural issues here, as well as translation issues.

    We live in a culture where we want to control everything and everyone. We also seem to believe something like “if I try hard enough, I can ‘save’ anybody and do anything. We have forgotten to ask about the true limits of what we can actually do in this world. How much can we actually “control” another person? Can we truly “make” another person do what we believe is right? Do we truly have that “power”?

    Doctors and therapists all have to learn to deal with the fact that not all their patients take their medicine or follow the treatment plan. As long as one has done one´s best to instruct and guide the patient, the question of actually taking the medicine is up to the patient – the patient´s choice. A doctor can give very clear instructions, but it is the patient´s responsability to follow them. There simply are things that no one can do for another person. No doctor or therapist is successful 100% of the time with 100% of the patients.

    Buddha recognized this truth and did not set himself up as an omnipotent savior. I would say that he did have a very high rate of success and the teachings have stood the test of time, but he was not able to “save” everyone – and had to be at peace with that limitation.

    When a person comes to me, I have to ask myself “what do I have to do with this?” Sometimes the answer will be that I do have something to do. But other times, the answer will be that there is nothing I can or should do. There´s a very fine line between genuine helping and psychological “saving” games… .

    Maybe you´ll agree with me, maybe not – at any rate, I´ve enjoyed reflecting “out loud”…

    I think you are right to study Buddha´s disciples, and seeing it as an aspect of “refuge in the Sangha”.


    1. Hello!

      Thank you for your comments, both on this post and the previous post! I deeply appreciate them. I am not sure what I say here can do justice to them, but I will try my best.

      I must admit I agree with you regarding the roles of caregivers and seeing the Buddha in light of understanding these roles. As you say here and in the previous comment, there is a time for stepping in and there is a time for respecting the choices made by the other person. In my experiences with this, the hardest lesson to learn is that sometimes helping means not helping…and of course, at other times, it means stepping in.

      So it is important to understand the Buddha’s words when he says “What have I to do with that, brahman? A Perfect One is simply one who shows the way,” in light of this dual role of caregivers. There is great compassion in just pointing out the way to others, allowing them to make the choices on their own. And, as you also importantly point out, there are many cases where the Buddha takes a more direct role in guiding his students.

      From my point of view, I wrote the previous post about this because it complicates what it means to be a Perfect One. I agree with these multi-facted roles you bring out – and it was a downside to my post that I did not use these ideas to bring out the point. What I was interested in was bringing to light that a Perfect One is not the kind of omniscient, omnipotent, carry you to enlightenment savior that might be thought of. The Buddha’s role in teaching and helping the many beings can take the role of stepping back and keeping quiet, of merely pointing the way. And in these cases it becomes clear that it is then up to the practitioner to diligently walk the Way themselves.

      You do raise other points too that I should have been more careful about. The words “what have I to do with that” do carry a lot of cultural baggage with them. I do not know what the original words are and their role in the culture out of which they originate. This has to be kept in mind when reading the English translations of Sutras (or any translations for that matter) – and I thank you for making this salient here. Although I try to keep myself aware of it, I sometimes fall asleep too! A good wake up is always appreciated!

      Also, the words “so what if no one can follow the directions” do come across as snotty – perhaps too strong for the point I was raising. At that time in the post, I was attempting to draw the contrast with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s position and I see now I did it too strongly. Thank you for pointing this out.

      All of this points to the fact that reading the Sutras and learning about the Buddha brings with it many perils and joys of translation and interpretation. By bringing this out and really playing around in it, we see that we can, at times, catch glimpses of the Buddha by reading the Sutras, but we also catch many glimpses of ourselves and how much our assumptions, culture, and experiences influence how we interpret the Buddha and interpret and engage this practice. Part of what I am doing with this blog is exploring that aspect of Dharma study and practice. And your comments are essential to this kind of project. Thank you!

      I hope that addresses some of your concerns and comments and hopefully it raises more questions and comments too. I deeply enjoyed reading and having the time to reflect and respond. I look forward to hearing from you again!

      With a deep bow,

      1. Great!

        I see that we´re actually on the same page about this.

        Our practice is such a paradox, like walking on a razor´s edge.

        A good example is the story about the Zen master who, when asked by one student if he believed in God, replied “no” and then replied “yes” to the same question from a different student – much to the consternation of his on-looking assistant.

        All the more reason for us to cultivate true Wisdom and Compassion – to be fully present in the Here and Now, able to tune into the other person and recognize what is needed for “this person at this moment”… .

        I´ve enjoyed this reflection – thanks for sharing.


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